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Awakening Your Ally-Body: From White Racial Shame to Allyship

For over a decade I have researched practical ways to shift the guilt, shame, denial and isolation that prevents myself and other folks of European descent from consistently challenging and changing institutionalized racism.

Along the way I have learned that understanding trauma and how to heal trauma in the body are critical to transforming racism and other forms of oppression.

What is Trauma?

Whenever we feel threatened, including when something traumatic is happening to us or the people we love, the limbic and reptilian areas of the brain activate our automatic survival strategies of fight, flight, freeze, appease and dissociate. Trauma is an experience (or a series of repeated experiences) that ruptures our sense of safety (in our bodies, and in the world) and our sense of connection (to ourselves, others, the earth, and spirit). Trauma is almost always accompanied by shame, so when we approach the trauma stored in the body, it is extremely common to feel shame. Institutionalized racism and white privilege is a profound social trauma.

Racism Traumatizes White People, Too

Historic and current racism has traumatized not only people of color, the targets of racism, but also white people, the agents of racism. In her book, Born To Belonging, white racial justice activist Mab Segrest alerts white people to

“…the profound damage racism has done to us, as if we as a people could participate in such an inhuman set of practices and beliefs over five centuries of European hegemony and not be, in our own ways, devastated emotionally and spiritually…I am not equating the damage done by racism to white people with the damage done to people of color…the pain of dominance is always qualitatively different from the pain of insubordination. But there is a pain, a psychic wound, to inhabiting and maintaining domination.”

To cope with this psychic wound, white people repeatedly turned our eyes and hearts away from the suffering we inflicted on people of color. It is natural to feel shame about participating in harming others. Shame, and the memories and feelings of powerlessness associated with trauma that lie beneath it, is so intolerable that we go to extreme measures to deal with it. For example, we have numbed and deadened ourselves for generations. Such numbing is one classic way of coping with trauma that we have inherited from our ancestors. It is a coping strategy that continues to prevent us from noticing and responding to injustice. We need to “thaw out” to be effective racial justice allies.

Over centuries, white people have developed and practiced other collective coping strategies besides numbing to avoid feeling our shame about participating in and benefiting from genocide, slavery, internment camps, economic exploitation of prison inmates, and other historical and current forms of white supremacy and racism. These shame coping strategies take the form of automatic individual and collective habits. As we have resorted to these habits over and over again, they have become default practices in the dominant white culture. These include: defensiveness, isolation, under/over responsibility, image management, self-absorption, absolution seeking, and paralysis.

Powerful Allyship Involves Thawing Out and Healing Social Trauma
The journey to powerful and accountable racial justice allyship is actually a process of thawing out and healing from trauma. This is challenging, because trauma is stored deeply in the body, and so thawing-out-from-trauma journey unfolds in our bodies. It is deeply intimate and personal.
The bad news is that thawing out is painful. When your foot falls asleep, the “pins and needles” part of the waking up process is painful. In the same way, when we begin to thaw out from our numbness, shame is right on top. And shame is intolerable.
Underneath shame is despair, powerlessness, and other unbearable feelings that accompany trauma and go along with losing our sense of stability, belonging and control.

The good news is, when we thaw out, we get our humanity back. Just as when the “pins and needles” feeling stops, you can use your foot again, once we have processed and released any ancestral or personal racial shame we carry, we can access more energy, hope and joy. This supports empowered, creative allyship.
One of the ways to heal shame and what lies beneath it is to give voice within compassionate community to our personal or collective shame, and to any underlying feelings of despair and powerlessness. The simple act of speaking the unspeakable in a loving context is redemptive. Our perceptions open up to beauty, to possibility, to hope. We emerge from the shadowy pit of shame.

In supportive community, we can begin to restore our sense of connection to ourselves and each other, and to all beings.

As we practice thawing out together, we become more human to ourselves and each other, and we see that we are simply human beings who have been taught to be white, and conditioned and positioned to oppress people of color. From this loving place, we can make new choices that support racial and social justice.

With gratitude to Staci Haines and Denise Benson for Generative Somatics wisdom